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5E Balancing Investigation checks and player descriptions

ad_hoc

Hero
I am having some trouble defining exactly where I want the line to be.

Here are the 2 extremes:

"I make an Intelligence (Investigation) check on the room."

"I open each the drawers in the desk and tap them for false bottoms. I look under the rug and remove the pictures on the wall. Etc. etc."


I know I want actual gameplay to be somewhere in between but I'm not sure where.

We use the 5e standard of players describing what their characters are doing. Then the DM decides whether they are successful, fail, or if the outcome is in doubt. If it is in doubt, the DM asks for a roll with an associated ability and usually a skill for proficiency bonus.

So what usually happens is that the player describes their character searching the room or object or whatever, and if there is something secret that they didn't exactly hit on then they roll to see if they found it.

The downside of needing the player to specify everything is that it grounds play to a halt and is tedious. The downside of just having the player make a roll is that the world is no longer interactable, details don't matter, etc. It just amounts to; did you make the roll in Room A? Okay you get X reward.

Here is the latest example that has prompted me to make this thread:

PCs find a treasure chest. They pick the lock. They find a bunch of coins inside. They move on. The chest had a secret compartment in the top where magic/interesting items were hidden.

This feels close to the line to me. I don't think I want them to automatically find the hidden compartment, because then there is no point. What I am unsure of is whether I want to have them roll for it or not.
 

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Ath-kethin

Adventurer
In the case if testing all the drawers for false bottoms, I'd say that if one of the drawers did in fact have a hidden compartment the PC would find it. After all, they were basically narrating what the Investigation check glosses over.

For the compartment in the chest, maybe have them roll Perception (the lid is heavier than it seems it should be) to find it.

I feel your pain, but I think it's cool you have players willing and happy to thinkt things through and describe their methods instead of just lazily depending on die rolls.
 

AriochQ

Adventurer
I make the tell me what they are looking for in order to make an Investigation check. i.e. "I am looking for secret doors", "I am looking for valuables", "I am looking for clues to find the missing woman", etc.

I then interpret their intent. For example, they won't probably find a secret door while looking for treasure, but they might find a secret compartment in a desk.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
I make the tell me what they are looking for in order to make an Investigation check. i.e. "I am looking for secret doors", "I am looking for valuables", "I am looking for clues to find the missing woman", etc.

I then interpret their intent. For example, they won't probably find a secret door while looking for treasure, but they might find a secret compartment in a desk.
Right, but at what point does that cross into tedium? At a certain point it isn't interesting to say that you search for secret doors or treasure, because you just do it every time in every room.

Of course time pressure tends to prevent that sort of brute force. In the example of searching the chest, they are clearly taking some time to acquire treasure.

I think requiring "I search the lid for a secret compartment" is too specific while "I search for secret compartments in everything" is too broad.
 

Saelorn

Hero
Right, but at what point does that cross into tedium? At a certain point it isn't interesting to say that you search for secret doors or treasure, because you just do it every time in every room.
I would do it by the object. You search the desk, and then the chair, and then the chest, and then the pillar.

I also wouldn't have them say what they're looking for - compartments, traps, treasure, or clues - because they won't usually know what they're looking for until they've found it. They're just looking for something out of place.
 

I generally allow both approaches, but if someone does a good job describing their action outside just "I use <insert skill here>," I might reduce the DC of the check.

But something as vague as "I search the room/cavern/entire castle" might also cause me to ask for clarification, if it's something really key or tricky.

However, in convention play, where it's time is an issue, I can totally see just going with the broader sweeps to keep the game moving.
 

We use the 5e standard of players describing what their characters are doing. Then the DM decides whether they are successful, fail, or if the outcome is in doubt. If it is in doubt, the DM asks for a roll with an associated ability and usually a skill for proficiency bonus.

So what usually happens is that the player describes their character searching the room or object or whatever, and if there is something secret that they didn't exactly hit on then they roll to see if they found it.

The downside of needing the player to specify everything is that it grounds play to a halt and is tedious.
Sure, I've been there. In the olden days, that was often all we had. No particular rules/rolls for a lot of things, so it came down to describing exactly what you were doing and hoping the DM found it plausible enough to succeed.

Players will likely lean to more detail the more often you narrate failure, and to less the more often you call for rolls, just in general. Narrating failure 'punishes' them for not coming up with a compelling enough description of why they should succeed.

Here is the latest example that has prompted me to make this thread: PCs find a treasure chest. They pick the lock. They find a bunch of coins inside. They move on. The chest had a secret compartment in the top where magic/interesting items were hidden.

This feels close to the line to me. I don't think I want them to automatically find the hidden compartment, because then there is no point. What I am unsure of is whether I want to have them roll for it or not.
You could make a roll behind the screen for them - for instance, the hypothetical check of the fellow that created the compartment vs the passive perceptions of the party. If it's not hidden well enough, they 'just happen' to notice something odd (you inadvertently bump the lid while taking coins out and it sounded hollow to you) that leads to finding the compartment. Otherwise, oh well.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
That's a really good example [MENTION=6748898]ad_hoc[/MENTION], the PCs get distracted by the shiny loot and don't look any further. The question then has to be why is the loot there - is it to accomplish precisely this effect? The robber thinks they hit the jackpot and won't look further.

So without some hint to the PCs that there's more to find they're not going to look. So this seems like something the DM has to illuminate with some narration. For example the lid can seem surprisingly heavy (certainly something they would sense without needing investigation). Or perhaps the lid makes an odd sound as it's lifting like something is sliding around inside.

Basically you've got to throw the PCs a bone so they know to investigate further.
 

I agree, part of the DM’s job is to give the PCs enough detail to make accurate decisions within the game, as far as their characters are aware. That being said, it’s a tricky balance – too much detail and you’re practically making the check for them (“Gee, why is the DM going into so much detail about the curtains in the room?”), too little and they’re going to never think to check.


So without some hint to the PCs that there's more to find they're not going to look. So this seems like something the DM has to illuminate with some narration. For example the lid can seem surprisingly heavy (certainly something they would sense without needing investigation). Or perhaps the lid makes an odd sound as it's lifting like something is sliding around inside.

Basically you've got to throw the PCs a bone so they know to investigate further.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
That's a really good example @ad_hoc, the PCs get distracted by the shiny loot and don't look any further. The question then has to be why is the loot there - is it to accomplish precisely this effect? The robber thinks they hit the jackpot and won't look further.

So without some hint to the PCs that there's more to find they're not going to look. So this seems like something the DM has to illuminate with some narration. For example the lid can seem surprisingly heavy (certainly something they would sense without needing investigation). Or perhaps the lid makes an odd sound as it's lifting like something is sliding around inside.

Basically you've got to throw the PCs a bone so they know to investigate further.
I mostly agree, however, at some point when giving clues like that as DM you are essentially just telling them what is there.

If this is the chest that has a particularly heavy lid, then the response 100% of the time will be, "I check the lid".

In that case the secret compartment is window dressing rather than something interesting.

I also don't think you need a specific clue about the chest for the PCs to have reason to search further. They could, for example, figure out that the people they are robbing should have more valuables than just a few coins.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
I agree, part of the DM’s job is to give the PCs enough detail to make accurate decisions within the game, as far as their characters are aware. That being said, it’s a tricky balance – too much detail and you’re practically making the check for them (“Gee, why is the DM going into so much detail about the curtains in the room?”), too little and they’re going to never think to check.
The players are basically fumbling around in a sensory deprivation tank without the DM telling them what they see, hear and feel. Playing a game of 20 questions isn't much fun and making the players investigate every little thing is tedious for everyone.

The question is - is there anything unusual about the lid that would be apparent without investigation? If there isn't then you're really hoping your players investigate every inch of every object they encounter, even after they found somethiing in that object - so basically search everything twice (but what about the secret compartment in the bottom - OK three times... - you see where this leads :) ) - that seems too much to ask IMHO.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
I mostly agree, however, at some point when giving clues like that as DM you are essentially just telling them what is there.

If this is the chest that has a particularly heavy lid, then the response 100% of the time will be, "I check the lid".

In that case the secret compartment is window dressing rather than something interesting.

I also don't think you need a specific clue about the chest for the PCs to have reason to search further. They could, for example, figure out that the people they are robbing should have more valuables than just a few coins.
The thing is if the secret compartment is no challenge to open beyond discovering it then that seems no fun for you or the players. This secret compartment is crying out to be trapped. You find the gold but hmm - something is odd about the lid. If the players, in their greed, just tear at the lid then they'll trip the trap. But careful investigation would reveal it and lead to a plan to open it without damage to themselves or the contents.

So it's not given away - it's given them a new challenge.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
The players are basically fumbling around in a sensory deprivation tank without the DM telling them what they see, hear and feel. Playing a game of 20 questions isn't much fun and making the players investigate every little thing is tedious for everyone.

The question is - is there anything unusual about the lid that would be apparent without investigation? If there isn't then you're really hoping your players investigate every inch of every object they encounter, even after they found somethiing in that object - so basically search everything twice (but what about the secret compartment in the bottom - OK three times... - you see where this leads :) ) - that seems too much to ask IMHO.
I think we're in agreement that it is tedious to require the players to specify the specific things they are searching.

In this example I wouldn't need them to say they are searching the lid. I think I want something though.

In the actual session they didn't feel very comfortable going through their stuff. The chest itself was out in the open, they picked the lock and when they found the coins inside they put everything back as they figured it wasn't worth the risk. Then they got out of there.

What would you have done? Would you have described the lid as being out of place? Is that any different than not having a secret compartment at all?

I think in retrospect I would have preferred to have a separate clue elsewhere (like a note in a desk) about more treasure so they would have more of an idea that there was certainly treasure to be found. Maybe the simplest way to do it is to describe the chest as simply being large.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
The thing is if the secret compartment is no challenge to open beyond discovering it then that seems no fun for you or the players. This secret compartment is crying out to be trapped. You find the gold but hmm - something is odd about the lid. If the players, in their greed, just tear at the lid then they'll trip the trap. But careful investigation would reveal it and lead to a plan to open it without damage to themselves or the contents.

So it's not given away - it's given them a new challenge.
So are you saying that you would rather not have secret compartments at all then?

Because your solution to the idea of having something to find is to put it in plain sight but have a trap instead. You are replacing one type of challenge with a different one.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
So are you saying that you would rather not have secret compartments at all then?

Because your solution to the idea of having something to find is to put it in plain sight but have a trap instead. You are replacing one type of challenge with a different one.
Well I don't think something that is only revealed by manipulating the object containing it is putting it in plain sight?

But if manipulating the containing object (the lid) reveals something unusual (it's too heavy for its size, or makes an odd noise) that is just part of the environment that the player would experience from manipulating the object. To not tell them seems unhelpful?

Secret compartments are tricky because of the fact that they are small and hidden. It's not like a secret door that can be detected via Passive Perception. it needs active searching in just the right spot. And that seems a hard trick to pull off when the players are effectively in a sensory deprivation tank without you telling them what they feel (sensorily) and hear...
 

shoak1

First Post
At our table we find describing searches to be about as dull as narrating the conversation w/the inkeeper. That's what skill checks are for. My players tell me how long they are taking to search, then i secretly roll it. On a 1 (fumble) they think they find something that really isn't useful, on a success i tell them "you find a +1 sword under a false bottom of the chest," and on a failure i tell them they find nothing. Now on to the next cool encounter, let's fight :)

Back in the day we used to narrate searches, until some wise player just wrote down in detail what they do in a standard search, then started saying " we do THIS" and hand me the list.....rinse repeat
example:
1) If there is a chest we poke and prod for false bottoms, fell around inside using gauntlets, while everyone else stands 6' away
2) one PC taps around for sece\ret doors, tapping and pulling objects on wall, etc
3) if bookcase, we pull each book out
etc etc
 

Prakriti

Hi, I'm a Mindflayer, but don't let that worry you
I feel like all games tend to devolve into "I Investigate the room" eventually. After you've played with the same people for months on end, you kind of know their habits and tics, so spelling everything out is almost unnecessary. It's not always a good thing, but it's natural. If you want to stop it from happening, then you have to work at it. It's almost like keeping the spark in a marriage.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
At our table we find describing searches to be about as dull as narrating the conversation w/the inkeeper. That's what skill checks are for. My players tell me how long they are taking to search, then i secretly roll it. On a 1 (fumble) they think they find something that really isn't useful, on a success i tell them "you find a +1 sword under a false bottom of the chest," and on a failure i tell them they find nothing. Now on to the next cool encounter, let's fight :)

Back in the day we used to narrate searches, until some wise player just wrote down in detail what they do in a standard search, then started saying " we do THIS" and hand me the list.....rinse repeat
example:
1) If there is a chest we poke and prod for false bottoms, fell around inside using gauntlets, while everyone else stands 6' away
2) one PC taps around for sece\ret doors, tapping and pulling objects on wall, etc
3) if bookcase, we pull each book out
etc etc
Have you read the thread?

I feel like all games tend to devolve into "I Investigate the room" eventually. After you've played with the same people for months on end, you kind of know their habits and tics, so spelling everything out is almost unnecessary. It's not always a good thing, but it's natural. If you want to stop it from happening, then you have to work at it. It's almost like keeping the spark in a marriage.
Yeah, there is a balance somewhere. That is what I am working toward. I think it is possible to have dynamic games.

If you wanted to you could boil the game down to just rolling dice. This applies to all pillars of the game.
 

Miladoon

First Post
I have no problem with having the characters indulge in the Exploration Pillar of the game. When the players actively explore a room, chest, etc., I offer them the narration reigns and a roll to beat a DC. Sometimes with advantage due to an entertaining narration.

When I make a drop bag, I don't pin it to any object or room. I pin a drop bag to a successful roll. If the search roll fails then there is nothing to find. They might find the drop bag later in another search. If they don't search, the items have the possibility to show up in another search. That way, all my plot items and treasure remain in game and eventually in the player's hands. You can carry over drop bags from one session to the next. I guess I am not a fan of stocking a dungeon and then not handing out the stock. It freaks me out a little knowing what they missed.
 
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